In the early summer of 1750, the Earl of March (later the 4th Duke of Queensberry and more commonly known as ‘Old Q’) and Alexander Montgomerie, 10th Earl of Eglinton made a wager with Theobald Taaffe, Esquire that a four-wheel carriage (or chariot/chaise), carrying a man, could run 19 miles on Newmarket Heath within an hour. The stakes were high, as the bet was for 1,000l.
Theobald Taaffe was from an Irish Roman Catholic family. Having married a wealthy English heiress and through her gained rights in a Jamaican property and a house in Hanover Square he had a brief interest in politics before setting to in squandering his fortune in high living. During 1750, Taaffe was one of the boon companions of the Duke of Bedford and Lord Sandwich, who were spending their whole time that summer in ‘riot and gaming’. This perhaps gives some indication of the atmosphere in which the Newmarket wager was conceived.
In 1751, Horace Walpole wrote to his friend, Horace Mann describing Theobald Taaffe as:
an Irishman, who changed his religion to fight a duel, as … you know, in Ireland a Catholic may not wear a sword. He is the hero who having betted Mrs. Woffington five guineas on as many performances in one night, and demanding the money which he won, received the famous reply, double or quits. He is a gamester, usurer, adventurer, and of late has divided his attentions between the Duke of Newcastle and Madame de Pompadour, travelling with turtles and pineapples in post-chaises, to the latter, flying back to the former for Lewes races—and smuggling Burgundy at the same time.
William Douglas, Earl of March, was cut from much the same cloth as Taaffe; he too had a reputation as a dissolute gambler and a rake. He also had a keen interest in horses and horse racing and was so frequently seen on the turf at Newmarket that it was almost his second home.
The match was to be run in August; it was supposed to take place in the middle of the month but was pushed back to the 29th. Lord March and Lord Eglinton commissioned a lightweight four-wheeled carriage from Mr Wright, a coachmaker in Long Acre, Covent Garden, to be built in haste. Long Acre was known for coachbuilding and Wright was one of the most noted, along with John Hatchett who also had premises on the street.
The first prototype of the four-wheeled race carriage was not an unbridled success; in trials on the heath two horses were killed and one lamed. Another carriage was built and conveyed to Newmarket which proved much more successful.
It is a most surprising piece of mechanism, and ‘tis said it does not weigh much more than 100 weight.
(Newcastle Courant, 7th July 1750)
This second carriage was extremely light and almost skeletal, and not at all what Taafe had envisaged when he made his bet. The Earl of March was a canny and astute operator and never bet when he thought the odds were against him; he almost certainly had a carriage of his own design – moreover one pulled by trained horses – in mind when he agreed to the challenge.
Even so, in early July, the bets were three to two that they didn’t do it.
Eventually, the date was set, to great excitement. Despite the report below, it was actually run on 29th August 1750 which was a Wednesday.
The Four Wheel Carriage, so long talked of, will certainly be run on Newmarket Heath on Tuesday next, when it is expected there will be the greatest number of nobility, &c that has been for many years at that place.
(Derby Mercury, 24th August 1750)
The carriage had one of Lord March’s postilions seated in it and four horses to pull it. Just before seven o’clock in the morning, they were off, starting at the Six Mile House on the Newmarket racecourse.
The near fore horse was a brown one, named Tawney, late Greville’s; the off fore horse was a dark grey, named Roderick Random, late Tom Stanford’s; the near wheel horse was a chestnut, named Chance, late Duke Hamilton’s; and the off wheel horse a grey, named Little Dan, late Parson Thompson’s of Beverley.
Three boys were assigned seats on the horses while the fourth was ridden by William Erratt (also named as Everett), groom to a Mr Panton, all four of them wearing blue satin waistcoats, buckskin breeches, white silk stockings and black velvet caps. Another groom, dressed in crimson, rode in front to clear the way. The poor postilion, sitting precariously in the carriage, wore a white satin waistcoat, black velvet cap and red silk stockings (although in the picture above he appears to be dressed similarly to the riders).
Immense crowds had come to watch, the ‘greatest part of the Sporting Gentlemen in England present’ and betting had changed to five to three in favour of the 19 miles being covered in less than an hour.
Luckily for the Earls of March and Eglinton, everything ran to clockwork. The first four miles were run in just nine minutes and there was then little doubt in the minds of the spectators but that Lord March and Lord Eglinton would be victorious. In the end, the spectacle was completed in well under the allotted hour (the London Evening Post said in 53 minutes and 20 seconds, and the Whitehall Evening Post had the time at 54 minutes 30 seconds but both newspapers agreed that the carriage could actually have covered 20 miles in less than an hour).
At least three of the horses, Tawney, Roderick Random (named after the eponymous hero of Tobias Smollett’s, The Adventures of Roderick Random which had been published two years earlier) and Little Dan were auctioned off at Newmarket a few weeks later. Perhaps Chance was the horse ridden by William Erratt/Everett, and described below as Evrat’s Horse?
On Thursday last the Chaise Horses were sold at Newmarket as follows:
- Tawney, for 110 guineas to Mr Horsley
- Roderick Random, for 90 guineas to Sir Thomas Sebright
- Little Dan, for 55 guineas to Mr Prance
- Surly, for 56 guineas to Mr Vernon
- Single Peeper, for 50 guineas to Lord Chedworth
- A Bay Horse, got by Fletcher’s Arabian, for 80 guineas to Mr Prance
- A Grey Horse, got by Dusty Miller, for 28 guineas to Sir William Beauchamp Proctor
- Evrat’s Horse, for 27 guineas to Mr Allen
(Derby Mercury, 12th October 1750)
Sources not mentioned above:
The Ipswich Journal, 9th June 1750 and 1st September 1750
Taaffe, Theobald (c.1708-80), of Hanover Sq., London, published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754, ed. R. Sedgwick, 1970